Is there anything worse than a period when it’s already cold outside, but the central heating is not on yet? A period from October 1 till October 15. Two weeks that drag on like two years.
In May, or rather in April, when I tuck away dozens of my fleece jackets, turtlenecks, tracksuits, hoodies, and sweaters, my soul sings like a nightingale. In summer, I’m more than happy with t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. So, when in late September, I get all that winter stuff out, I feel like crying—believe it or not. From now on, every trip to the grocery store will be accompanied by a series of ceremonies, such as tying or untying my shoelaces or doing up or undoing my jacket. As if it’s not enough, I have to put on the “home armor”, too—a thick woollen button-up sweater on top of my favorite washed out t-shirt. I don’t know about the Evenks or the Aleuts, but personally I get sick and tired of wearing woollen sweaters every single day. Where on earth is our inherent freedom of movement? Where’s lightness and ease? I feel like a tortoise mutilated by God for no reason at all.
A friend of mine who moved to Latin America a long time ago told me that wealthy local women looked forward to the cold spell, so they could show off their new fur coats and boots. I felt puzzled and even hurt when I heard about it—had I found myself in a country where there’s no need for anything warmer than a raincoat, in three months I would’ve forgotten words like “winter jacket”, “scarf”, and “hat” forever. I hate winter clothes like poison. It’s only the need to put them on that I hate more.
My hatred for winter clothes fades, though, when I remember about a heater that was sitting in a closet all summer long. I drag it out and turn it on carefully, only at night, in a superpower savings mode. But even that is a walk in the park compared to my anxiety about the heating bills that would soon appear in my mailbox.
I get a call from my sister. She says that most probably her heating subsidy application will be turned down this year. Over the past few years, she managed to overcome the government’s roadblocks to subsidies. But this year it’s different. People leave the subsidy program department with their eyes wide open, she says. Oh, the government’s sieve! You’ll filter even more applications out. One can only imagine what will happen next year.
Another friend of mine whose parents live in a remote village, says that most villagers are unemployed and have no chances of getting a job. At the same time, to be eligible for the subsidy, you, my dear citizen, have to pay a single social contribution. There’s no post office or a grocery store in that godforsaken village. The locals never switch their lights on in the evening, my friend says. They go to bed in woollen sweaters and felt boots, so as not to turn the heating on once again. Back in the 1990s, they were eager to dismantle their solid fuel heaters and install gas heating systems. Now, they’re more than eager to go back to those solid-fuel ones.
It’s not the case with apartment buildings like mine, though. You just cannot lug some alder wood from a swamp nearby. Last year, my neighbors and I were freezing to death until mid-January. I’d come into my bedroom and find myself in a snow queen’s kingdom. Finally, one of the neighbors decided to go ahead and file complaints to all kinds of institutions. In keeping with Benford’s Law, one of her complaints pressed the right button, and dozens of inspectors started to knock on our doors. They’d raise the curtains, sniff and grumble, looking at the radiators, and jot something down in their notepads. Their dirty boots on, they’d climb onto our beds to check the radiators behind them. At long last, Vasyl the plumber went down to the basement and opened a valve. My bedroom quickly warmed up. It was comfortably warm, at that—in mid-January, after my heater ran way beyond its warranty period after I paid a couple thousand hryvnias more than I should’ve paid to the heating company. That was obviously a magic valve. Well, things happen. To feel warm, you have to feel cold first. The contrast will only add to your happiness.
In summer, the go-ahead neighbor started to go door to door and try to persuade people to install a gas meter—one for our entire building. We’d save nearly thirty per cent every month, she said. I told her I’d share the installation cost and pay that two and a half thousand hryvnias. I didn’t believe that it would work, though. Why would the heating company all of a sudden cut its bills by thirty percent just because we installed a gas meter? It sounded like a fairy tale. It’s a pity I didn’t get a chance to see if it worked, after all, since hardly anyone of my neighbors agreed to engage in this shady undertaking. Our people see through the trick at once. Been there, done that.
Old women sitting on a bench outside our apartment building hope for a warm winter. They look out for nature signs. If a heating company inspector arrives in the late afternoon—and if that’s a woman—winter is sure to be mild. The old women are smiling, their eyes shining with hope. Whenever one of the kids that are running around goes inside, leaving the front door gaping behind them, they open their mouths to yell at them only to remember about an intercom installed a few years ago that closes the door automatically, keeping warm air inside.
The old women get up from the bench and flock to the supermarket to check for discounts and stock up. They are smarter than me, a carefree guy whose fridge is completely empty. They know that the fall will inevitably come, just like the winter afterwards. They know that nothing except for rain and snow will fall on their heads from the sky. The old women will survive the coming winter without last-minute loans. They live slow, frugal lives. They even got buckets in their bathtubs under the leaky taps—the dripping water will fill them up sooner or later, but it won’t show on their meters. Do you see what I mean?
Meanwhile, fishing a bill out of my mailbox, I frown, as usual, and say to myself—like in that fable about the dragonfly and the ant, “Did you sing? This is the thing! Now, you’ll have your chance to dance.”